The 650 | 8th June 2017

View from Hull West: Can an Apprentice winner sink Labour in Alan Johnson’s old seat?


Hull West and Hessle, according to the Guardian profile of Alan Johnson, its former MP, is the “city centre and fishing port of an isolated, rather grim east coast town”.

Things have changed since, not least the departure of Johnson, a titan of Labour’s year in government. His departure the end of an era for Hull politics, with the last of the city’s three biggest postwar parliamentarians all having retired (Hull North stalwart Kevin McNamara stood down in 2005, as did John Prescott in 2010).

With such a gap being left by Johnson’s departure, many opportunists are presenting themselves to fill the void left by the ex-Home Secretary. One stands out: the independent candidacy of ex-Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry. Her campaign seems an exercise in vanity at first glance. Dewberry is front and centre of the campaign, and has been criticised for saying she had “designed” her principles.

But Dewberry is a cannier political operator than many give her credit for. When we met in her campaign HQ, the Ye Olde White Harte Pub – whose refusal of entry to Charles I in 1642 is said to have sparked the Civil War – she cut a plain-speaking but slick image. Bar a few minor gaffes, Dewberry quite effectively positioned herself as the malleable alternative to Labour’s monopoly in the region.

Whilst Dewberry’s campaign claim Labour’s canvassing returns show them second, it is the Tories they really fear. Analysis by Atul Hatwal in Labour Uncut predicts Labour to only be 5 per cent ahead of the Tories, due to a degradation in its working class base and the allure of a explicitly pro-Brexit Conservative.

Whilst there were fears at the beginning of the campaign that the seat may be under threat, especially without Alan Johnson to help persuade old Labour voters to stay, Labour seem a lot calmer than previously about winning: in part because of its candidate, Emma Hardy.

Hardy, a former primary school teacher who now works for the NUT, has run a successful campaign around local issues and preventing education cuts, steering the topic of conversation away from Brexit. Hardy’s strength as a local candidate has helped ease the pressure on Brexit, especially due to the absence of a parachute candidate. Sam Tarry, a Corbyn office staffer, had been rumoured to be favourite, but missed out. The antipathy to Corbyn here means he may well have struggled.

But thankfully for Labour, voters in Hull West and Hessle seem largely content, though not with Jeremy Corbyn. But the prime minister has few admirers here either. “For me it’s Labour because we need it,” said one commuter in her fifties outside the Hull Royal Infirmary. “I may not like Corbyn much, and but I know he thinks about people more than Theresa May, and Alan always did us well, so why change?”

Many others I spoke to said they were reluctant to vote for Labour, but were adamant in their opinion that they wouldn’t be better off with the Tories, and cited issues like Education and the NHS as to why Labour would be their choice on the 8th June.

The political mood around Corbyn seemed little different from the response to Ed Miliband: a nice man who doesn’t seem wholly capable of running the country, but nonetheless is better than the alternative. Only a few had heard of Michelle Dewberry, and voters were pleased if not outwardly impressed by her.

Despite Hull having the curious position as the only city in the UK that trades more with the US than it does with the EU, Brexit seems to be a small issue for many voters, if not a forgone conclusion already. But nonetheless there is no guarantee it will be all that easy a night for Labour in what was once one of its safest seats.